Photo: Robbie Caponetto
In 1948, Metro Goldwyn Mayor arrived in Oxford to film “Intruder in the Dust” with a budget of $250,000. Pappy’s stock shot up. “Count No-Count,” it seemed, was nowhere to be seen and in his place a benefactor of unimpeachable generosity. I was living in Clarksdale, and was eaten up with jealousy that [my step-cousin] Vicki was living at Rowan Oak, basking in the glitter of Pappy’s “sudden fame.” (If Hollywood knew who Pappy was, we reasoned, then shouldn’t we be famous, too?) We made plans that as soon as I got to Oxford, we would set up a card table in the driveway and charge people a quarter to see Rowan Oak. We were going to be rich. Meanwhile, for every minute that I remained in Clarksdale, I fretted that Vicki was cutting school and going to the movie set. I knew [Pappy’s daughter] Jill would be a part of it. That was okay. But Vicki…without me! I could hardly stand it. I figured by the time I got to Oxford, she would have a BIG PART in the picture show. She’d probably get to kiss Claude Jarman, Jr. I was absolutely green with envy after I found out that Vicki had been cast as an extra in a mob scene. Her role was “Little-Girl-Eating-An-Ice-Cream-Cone.” It nearly killed me.
Finally, Pappy drove to Clarksdale to get me, promising to show me movie people in action. We returned to Lafayette County where a scene was being filmed at a pond with a wooden bridge. The scene was the one in which veteran character actor Porter Hall, playing the villain “Nub Cowrie,” was caught in quicksand. We watched for hours, fascinated, as the crew dumped boxes of oatmeal into the pond to simulate quicksand. After each take, Porter Hall would towel off and change into an identical dry outfit for the next take. My interest never flagged. If they had kept shooting I’d still be there.
During the filming Pappy and Aunt Estelle gave a party for Jill and invited members of the cast and crew. For once Vicki and I were too intimidated by the sight of Claude Jarman, Jr., to come all the way downstairs. The older teens were dancing in the front parlor. We watched from the landing, goggle-eyed, as Jarman danced with Jill, and Mil’Murray, and most of the girls at the party. Vicki and I were giddy with excitement, but grateful for the safety and anonymity of the staircase. We knew when we were out of our league.
A year later, the premiere of “Intruder in the Dust” was held at the Lyric Theatre. [My mother] Wese and I had moved back to Oxford and I was happily in the thick of things. Vicki and I found out much later that the grownup world had been in a stew when Pappy threatened not to attend the film debut. If we had known, we’d have died. If Pappy didn’t go, nobody, including us, could have gone! Unbeknownst to us, pressure was brought to bear by Nannie and Aunt Bama (Mrs. Alabama McLean), who came all the way from Memphis for the occasion. These formidable ladies beat down Pappy’s resistance until he agreed to attend the premiere.